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Why Are There 5,280 Feet in a Mile?

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Why are there 5,280 feet in a mile, and why are nautical miles different from the statute miles we use on land? Why do we buy milk and gasoline by the gallon? Where does the abbreviation "lb" come from? Let's take a look at the origins of a few units of measure we use every day.

The Mile

The basic concept of the mile originated in Roman times. The Romans used a unit of distance called the mille passum, which literally translated into "a thousand paces." Since each pace was considered to be five Roman feet—which were a bit shorter than our modern feet—the mile ended up being 5,000 Roman feet, or roughly 4,850 of our modern feet.

If the mile originated with 5,000 Roman feet, how did we end up with a mile that is 5,280 feet? Blame the furlong. The furlong wasn't always just an arcane unit of measure that horseracing fans gabbed about; it once had significance as the length of the furrow a team of oxen could plow in a day. In 1592, Parliament set about determining the length of the mile and decided that each one should be made up of eight furlongs. Since a furlong was 660 feet, we ended up with a 5,280-foot mile.

The Nautical Mile

So if the statute mile is the result of Roman influences and plowing oxen, where did the nautical mile get its start? Strap on your high school geometry helmet for this one. Each nautical mile originally referred to one minute of arc along a meridian around the Earth. Think of a meridian around the Earth as being made up of 360 degrees, and each of those degrees consists of 60 minutes of arc. Each of these minutes of arc is then 1/21,600th of the distance around the earth. Thus, a nautical mile is 6,076 feet.

The Acre

Like the mile, the acre owes its existence to the concept of the furlong. Remember that a furlong was considered to be the length of a furrow a team of oxen could plow in one day without resting. An acre—which gets its name from an Old English word meaning "open field"—was originally the amount of land that a single farmer with a single ox could plow in one day. Over time, the old Saxon inhabitants of England established that this area was equivalent to a long, thin strip of land one furlong in length and one chain—an old unit of length equivalent to 66 feet—wide. That's how we ended up with an acre that's equivalent to 43,560 square feet.

The Foot

As the name implies, scholars think that the foot was actually based on the length of the human foot. The Romans had a unit of measure called a pes that was made up of twelve smaller units called unciae. The Roman pes was a smidge shorter than our foot—it came in at around 11.6 inches—and similar Old English units based on the length of people's feet were also a bit shorter than our 12-inch foot. The 12-inch foot didn't become a common unit of measurement until the reign of Henry I of England during the early 12th century, which has led some scholars to believe it was standardized to correspond to the 12-inch foot of the king.

The Gallon

The gallon we use for our liquids comes from the Roman word galeta, which meant "a pailful." There have been a number of very different gallon units over the years, but the gallon we use in the United States is probably based on what was once known as the "wine gallon" or Queen Anne's gallon, which was named for the reigning monarch when it was standardized in 1707. The wine gallon corresponded to a vessel that was designed to hold exactly eight troy pounds of wine.

The Pound

Like several other units, the pound has Roman roots. It's descended from a roman unit called the libra. That explains the "lb" abbreviation for the pound, and the word "pound" itself comes from the Latin pondo, for "weight." The avoirdupois pounds we use today have been around since the early 14th century, when English merchants invented the measurement in order to sell goods by weight rather than volume. They based their new unit of measure as being equivalent to 7000 grains, an existing unit, and then divided each 7000-grain avoirdupois pound into 16 ounces.

Horsepower

Early 18th-century steam engine entrepreneurs needed a way to express how powerful their machines were, and the industrious James Watt hit on a funny idea for comparing engines to horses. Watt studied horses and found that the average harnessed equine worker could lift 550 pounds at a clip of roughly one foot per second, which equated to 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute.

Not all scholars believe that Watt arrived at his measurement so scientifically, though. One common story claims that Watt actually did his early tests with ponies, not horses. He found that ponies could do 22,000 foot-pounds of work per minute and figured that horses were half again stronger than ponies, so he got the ballpark figure of 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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